In 1972, when I was ten years old, and growing up outside of Detroit, I heard a derogatory term used for people who sat out on their porch hanging out with friends and talking. The term porch monkey was used in a way that implied that there was something seriously wrong with people who liked to hang out with friends on their porch.
At the time my family didn’t have a front porch, but I knew I enjoyed playing and lounging with my siblings and friends both inside and outside, so I didn’t understand why this would be an insult. I also knew that I enjoyed sitting with cousins on my grandmother’s porch, rocking in the davenport and simply watching the river go by. I decided that this expression was one of those things that I was too young to understand but would make more sense when I was older.
Well, I am older now. Much older. And over the decades, I have thought a lot about this expression. And yet I have never had the aha! moment of understanding why sitting leisurely on one’s own porch would be something to condemn. Over the years, I have actually found that sitting on my porch, or inside, or under a tree, relaxing alone or chatting with friends or family is one of the most satisfying activities in life.
I moved away from Michigan years ago, coming to Washington DC where I find the pressure to be productive even more intense. We are conditioned to believe that we must be productive every moment of every day. I now have a front porch, but it would be embarrassing to tell anyone that I sat on the porch with my dog reading a book while the rest of the city was working. And as we all get busier, there are ever fewer opportunities to sit on the porch with others and just chat about whatever comes to mind. One of the reasons that I love to visit France is the culture of taking long leisurely meals at outdoor cafes (the French equivalent of a front porch) talking with friends and watching the world go by.
Why are we working so hard? As Bertrand Russell says in his 1932 essay, In Praise of Idleness, there are two kinds of work: moving matter about on the earth, and directing others to do so. Some work is quite beneficial to other beings and the world, of course. Many of us work in jobs in which we are trying to help others be healthy enough, or peaceful enough, or well off enough to enjoy their lives. And yet we work too hard to enjoy our own. And though our work may be important, when we never have stillness and down time, we begin to believe that our work is indispensable and more urgent than it really is. This then leads to less opportunity for sitting on the porch.
Good nature is, of all moral qualities, the one that the world needs most, and good nature is the result of ease and security, not of a life of arduous struggle. Modern methods of production have given us the possibility of ease and security for all; we have chosen, instead, to have overwork for some and starvation for others. Hitherto we have continued to be as energetic as we were before there were machines; in this we have been foolish, but there is no reason to go on being foolish forever. –Bertrand Russell
So many things in our world seem to conspire to push us to work more and enjoy life less. It is truly radical to decide to sit on our porch with no agenda, even when our friends, family, and our own minds tell us we should be working. If we take the time to pause, to breathe, do some yoga or qi gong, we can see clearly that this moment is the only moment that we have to enjoy. And why not enjoy it sitting on our porch or at our dining room table with whomever we like, while we are still able to do so?